Contemporary Television and the Character-Driven Plot

I’m calling it the “Walking Dead Phenomenon.”  The “it” I’m referring to is the increased use of quasi-ensemble, revolving door casts in current television dramas.  Granted, I don’t regularly watch many tv shows, so it’s possible that what I’m identifying as a trend might simply be a collection of isolated situations.  However, the fact remains that it’s resulting, at least in my opinion, in shitty storytelling.

The storytelling angle is really the only reason why I have any business at all analyzing television shows.  I know virtually nothing about the television industry.  However, as any  writer should, I know at least a tiny bit  about how to tell a story.  Before I explain why the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” is problematic, I should probably define it in more detail.  The casting situation I’m referring to is founded on a semi-ensemble cast that is bloated with characters.  I say semi-ensemble because, in most cases, there are a few “key” characters that are more important than the others.  The revolving door component references the way in which characters are frequently killed off with all the ceremony of a toddler wielding a chainsaw.  This is, of course, to make room for more characters, who will likely fall prey to the same chainsaw-wielding toddler within the next season.

The “Walking Dead Phenomenon” irritates me primarily because I’m a fan of the character-driven plot.  Well-developed and otherwise interesting characters will sell me on just about anything.  This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of action, but rather that I don’t think that a story can survive on action alone.  I don’t care if you’re writing a story about dragons that shoot laserbeams out of their toenails; if you fuck up the character development, my interest level will drop.  In fact, I’ll probably stop reading it.  If you disagree with me regarding the necessity of character development, I understand and respect that.  However, I hope that you’ll also be able to understand where I’m coming from as I itemize the reasons why I think that the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” (hereafter to be referred as the WDP) is a storykiller.

  • Insufficient Attention to Subplots Due to the Unmanageable Number of Characters

The Following is one of my favorite new shows.  There are some fantastic narrative things going on there.  However, because so many characters are introduced in the first season, there are a number of backstories and subplots that emerge in relation to the second-tier (i.e., not Kevin Bacon or James Purefoy) characters.  This, alone, is not problematic.  What bothers me is the fact that, due to the necessity of moving the main plot and resolving central conflicts, these backstories and subplots are abandoned or poorly developed.  This is closely connected to my next gripe, which is…

  • Killing Characters Off in MId-Arc

Sometimes, the reasons why the aforementioned subplots and backstories are abandoned are that the characters involved get killed off in the middle of their arcs, and are never fully developed as a result.  (The Following contains a number of examples of this, which I won’t discuss in detail so as to avoid spoilers.) In my opinion, this is just poor form.  It seems like the narrative equivalent of driving into a brick wall.  Who knows why this is happening, but I theorize that it’s related to the size of the casts.  Because these shows already have more characters than they can manage, they have to clearcut their casts in order to add any new characters, even if it means leaving storylines unresolved.  Incidentally, my next complaint is…

  • Meaningless Character Death

I get really emotional when I have to kill off my own characters.  I also get emotional when other people kill off theirs.  (People always say to me, “Why are you crying? None of this is real.”  I think that they are oversimplifying their definitions of real and unreal, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Killing a character is a big deal.  It should matter.  If it doesn’t matter that a character dies, then why should we, as the audience, care about anything that they do while they’re alive?   The WDP facilitates a cycle of character death without consequence.  Shows like The Walking Dead and The Following have large casts, and they do a decent job of individualizing their secondary characters.  However, they also kill them off so frequently and unceremoniously that the audience becomes desensitized to the implications of their deaths.  As mentioned before, these character deaths can also leave characters partially developed and conflicts unresolved.  It seems, in many cases, that the WDP creates a climate in which character death is a shock-value commodity with little or no bearing on the development of the story as a whole.  All of these things are discouraging to an audience; why would we bother getting invested in any of the characters at all?

I hope that this illustrates, at least in part, my concerns regarding what I’ve dubbed the WDP.  To be clear, I don’t think that the shows I’ve mentioned are bad shows.  As I mentioned, The Following is one of my new favorites.  I referenced them only to provide examples of the phenomenon I wanted to discuss.  My point is simply that storytellers have responsibilities to their audiences, regardless of their medium. 




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2 responses to “Contemporary Television and the Character-Driven Plot

  1. Love your blog pirate girl. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said but since TWD is one of my favorite shows I think we can have a good discussion about this. I agree that characters should never be killed without purpose, and I feel that TWD hasn’t really done that too much. Most often when a second tier character dies its to advance the plot of one or all of the main characters. I’ll try not to give away any spoilers either but let’s use the example where the love interest of a main character is introduced in the season premiere and is killed off later in that same episode to demonstrate how callous and de-humanized the main character has become. Obviously the show has a massive body count but after the first season (where they didn’t know if there would be a second season and were finding their voice) I can’t think of a single death which felt unnecessary or frivolous. I only watched the first season of The Following so I can’t comment on how it has progressed. If we look at another current blockbuster in Game of Thrones we have a show which is as famous for its willingness to kill off main characters as it is for its story lines. I can’t defend every instance of character death in GoT but it does add an element of constant tension and drama reminiscent of a thriller/horror film. Possibly the worst culprit of WPD would be Lost which I feel painted themselves into a corner multiple times with ridiculous plotlines and were forced to kill people off just to end the insanity.

    • Thanks for reading! You make a good case for the necessity of character death in the The Walking Dead. On this side of the issue, I do agree that the premise of the show itself kind of necessitates a high character mortality rate. I only watched the first two seasons of TWD, so it’s also possible that I might feel differently if I were current with show. However, one of the major reasons I stopped watching it was because I found it increasingly difficult to get invested in the characters. On the other hand, my hangups with character development are largely based on personal storytelling preference. Some people might argue that, due to the apocalyptic nature of the storyline, you’re not necessarily supposed to be invested in the characters. This, I think, is a valid point. I haven’t seen Lost or Game of Thrones, but I’ve heard that they’re pretty cavalier with their treatment of characters. I actually did think of Game of Thrones when I was writing this, but I didn’t really have any experience with the show. In any event, I respect your counterpoints!

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